NOTE: FIN HAS NOW CLOSED.
If you’ve ever gazed longingly on the sumptuous food images in coffee table cook books, you may have thought the dishes came to the photographer straight from the stove; but no, they were doubtless doctored, sculpted, and re-assembled by a professional food stylist. Such people work not only with chanterelles, beef carpaccio, peppers, and rich sauces, but also with cool air nebulizers, various combinations of unspeakable chemicals, white glue, corn syrups, and coloring agents.
When you dine at Fin, you may think your dishes have jumped out of the pages of elegant food magazines, where such styling is de rigeur. But you will be seeing the real thing, artful creations from a kitchen that’s producing some of the most ravishing visual displays this city’s restaurants have to offer. Furthermore, in a town that has never taken full advantage of the plenitude of Pacific creatures, Fin introduces Portlanders to a wealth of diverse fish and seafood, bouquets for the palate that are stunningly executed and exceedingly tasteful.
The short, single-syllable name of the restaurant is a clue to the simplicity and lucidity of its dishes. I say “simplicity,” though many of the preparations are indeed complex, with ingenuous combinations of ingredients, many hardly ever seen in these parts. But the cooking at Fin treats everything with the utmost respect; nothing is masked, disguised, or transformed into something it is not; rather everything has the crystalline clarity of a scallop shaved to transparency. Either there’s a mandoline that’s working overtime, or the brilliant chef Trent Pierce has enviable knife skills. Much of the fish he sends out allows the light to shine through pellucid flesh.
Most of the fish is flown in daily and fresh from Hawaiian waters. The preparations tend to employ Japanese ingredients, though you may search many a Portland izakaya before you find a lot of them. Some recipes blend flavors in a fashion that’s uncommon yet harmonious, as when a fragile cross section of a scallop is accompanied by salted wild plum sauce combined with orange; or when textures that sound incongruous nevertheless complement each other, like the brain-softness of sea urchin and the palate-popping sensuality of trout roe.
The surprises begin right away, with a plate of focaccia bread and a scattering of four different salts: beet, anise, citrus, and cocoa. They make a pretty picture, and cause you to wonder how beet gets into salt in the first place. Wonderment in fact will turn out to be the order of the evening.
The menu is divided into two categories: “Raw Plates” and “Hot Plates.” Those who remember Levi-Straus from Anthropology 101 might have expected “the raw and the cooked,” but I suspect the restaurant doesn’t want to make the distinction the great anthropologist did between nature and culture, what is given and what is fabricated. The raw plates at Fin are just as “worked” as the hot ones. In fact, they may be the more “cultivated” of the two, the product of even more intense and precise skill. In fact Fin has its own sous chef of the raw: Naomi Wartel, who has trained with rigorous sushi makers.
The plates from each of the categories arrive in no particular order, a whimsical notion. But it hardly matters. Certainly you should order the best of all the raw dishes, the “Ceviche.” For those who know the traditional versions at Andina, Fin’s represent an entirely different order of thinking. One night the fish was ono, a lean tropical game fish that’s served sashimi grade. Another night it was Japanese Tai, a tender rockfish or sea bream once so prized it was presented as a gift to the shogun. The Japanese word “mede-tai” literally means “auspicious” or “deserving of good fortune.” The lucky diner will find nuggets of Tai marinated in olive oil, set off with fingernail sized dried shrimp, mint, cilantro, and an infusion of lemon, the gorgeous assemblage topped by exquisite chili threads that play against the bracing chill of the fish. It’s a dish fiery with both Thai and Vietnamese inflections. Your server will suggest sharing all your raw plates, but once you get your hands on this delicacy you may try to guard it with your life.
The octopus arrives on three porcelain spoons. A finely chopped salad of the cephalopod is enclosed inside a delicate wrapping of striped marlin, a buttery fish whose satin texture contrasts nicely with the crunch of ice-cold octopus. Marlin, incidentally, was the fish sought by the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Fin’s offering slides sensuously off the spoon and yields one bite of bliss, an experience of effortless hedonism, though you might be inclined first to slurp off the topping of tobiko, a glorious little mass of Lilliputian flying fish eggs that deliver a delectable crunch.
A plate listed simply as “carpaccio” turned out to be paper-thin slices of barracuda. The fragile strips are arranged on a long black platter, and come on a bed of seaweed infused with sake and topped with the same roe, the little red eggs giving the dish a festive air of Christmas. If you’re sensuously inclined, simply lay the filet on your tongue and let it melt away.
The only cold item I found fault with is butterfish tartare mixed with avocado and yuzu, a citrus-like fruit combining tastes of orange and grapefruit. The tartare needs to be colder, and avocado makes it somewhat mushy. Not a bad offering, but it doesn’t hold up next to the other superlatives on the raw list.
Everything is an adventure here, a wild ride with a rollercoaster of tastes taking you to highs and lows. A favorite hot dish—really a hot pot—is the Korean casserole known as bibimbab. The name sounds like a game of whack the enemy, but it means simply “mixed rice.” Into a sturdy stone bowl coated with sesame oil goes a layer of rice, cooked to a golden-brown crust, on top of which are slabs of snapper, wild mushrooms, leeks, black kale, and shredded carrots. A cruet of hot Korean oil comes alongside, and you pour it over the concoction for a satisfying sizzle. It’s a rather mild dish, so you’ll welcome the small side of homemade kimchee, a blazing saddles scorcher that puts more than a little life into the ingredients.
A less dramatic but more refined experience is the butterfish. This Japanese swimmer also bears the curious names of “melon seed” and “wart perch”—no wonder “butterfish” is what appears on the menu, though it’s more commonly known as “escolar.” The dish is a model of finely attuned ingredients. First thick pieces of the sweet white flesh are rolled in cocoa and seared, producing a coal-black exterior and an ivory interior. A small mixture of fennel and orange confit as well as currants plumped in grappa set the fish against what is essentially a fresh salad dotted with fruit. A tiny pool of aged balsamic lends acidic balance to the sweetness. It sounds like a bit of ingredient overkill, but somehow it all works together handsomely, with no disturbance to classically minded epicures.
Surprises abound. Take a slab of perfectly cooked marlin with a parchment-thin layer of lardo or cured pork fatback laid across the top, insuring that just enough fat melts into the fish and keeps it moist throughout the cooking. You can peel the creamy, greaseless lardo from the fish and eat it solo for a guilty pleasure, or savor it together with each rich bite.
Fin’s dessert list is a modest affair with just three items. Pass on the cheese platter, an anomaly with the Asian fish theme. A chocolate confection is relatively forgettable. But do spring for the flavorful olive oil cake, rimmed with a scattering of olives soaked in sugar syrup and candied for a taste you’d never dreamed olives could deliver.
Fin occupies the space that formerly housed Sel Gris, which closed after last year’s disastrous fire. The industrial-sleek interior has been somewhat modified, though the gleaming open kitchen and the backlit cobalt-blue bar remain. There are just a handful of tables and booths, and a long parabolic island running down the spine of the room that’s used mainly for walk-in customers. The place still has a tasteful elegance, softened now with a generous use of reclaimed wood.
Service is crisp and precise, and you’ll get deft answers to the many questions you’re bound to have. Any recipe that reads “robate grilled scallop, guanciale, clams, 60 minute yolk, crisp potato, white miso butter, and house made srircha” is bound to elicit an inquiry or two, even from the most informed gourmand.
One minor problem is that the music, often rock played too loudly, can seem incongruous with the serenity and delicacy of the food. A restaurant committed to marine depths might put on those old recording of whale songs, or at least something suggestive of waves lapping on the shore.
Dining at Fin is an experience, not just a meal. You know you’re in the hands of a chef who has thought seriously about his craft, and whose art is sculptural as well as gastronomical. After three visits and several repeats of items, I tired of nothing, and could hardly wait to introduce many of these dishes to friends. One of the pleasures here is to see how, from night to night, the kitchen slightly alters the ingredients in a given dish. Call this piscatory practice “switch and bait,” for once you fish in Fin’s waters it’s you who will be hooked.
(All photos by Joni Kabana Photography)
- Food: A
- Service: A minus
- Ambiance: B plus
- Address: 1852 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd
- Hours: Open for dinner Wednesday-Sunday (5:30 pm to close)
Raw plates: $9-$14.
Hot plates: $12-$22.
Noise level: Just about right.
Wine list: beautifully chosen, especially from less well known producers from Italy, France, Spain, Down Under, and the Northwest, Excellent on whites. All bottles from vineyards in or near coastal regions.
Cocktails; a handful of enticing, offbeat drinks. Don’t miss the “Okazaki”: sake paired with vodka and orange.
Marlin wrapped octopus, yuzu tobiko
Netart oysters on the half shell, verjus mignonette
Tai snapper ceviche, rocoto chili, tomato, olive oil, lime
Cocoa-dusted butterfish, navel orange confit, fennel caponata, 30 year balsamic
Squid ink taglietelle, habanero/bonito nage, tobiko, pickled calamari
Grilled amberjack, jalapeno pesto, ponzu emulsion, Spanish olive oil
Grilled scallop, guanciale, clams, 60 minute yolk, crisp potato, white miso butter, house made sriracha
Grilled skirt steak, seared blue prawn, achiote sambal, fermented black bean vinaigrette, tomatillo salsa
Skate wing, gochulang black butter, mint, green tomato, potato
I love sushi and this looks unreal, thanks for post, I’m sure to go…
Nice job! Two quibbles: Food stylists for magazines and cookbooks never use fake stuff anymore. 20 years ago, yes, but not anymore. In fact, today’s stylists would be offended by the assumption that they use chemicals and such. Styling food for advertisements and packaging, however, is a different story.
Also, it would be helpful to have prices next to the dishes.
Food Dude says
We are going to be spending some time later this year standardizing formats on our reviews. From the results of the most recent poll, I think we’ll both start putting prices next to the dishes.
Those are some really nice looking plates. Very delicate presentation.
Great review – we recently ate at Fin and tried almost all the menu (girlfriend doesn’t like pork, so two of the offerings were out), as well as some cocktails and a great bottle of Pinot Noir. Presentation was stunning, plating was superb, flavors were interesting and new, and the service was top-notch. I spoke with Chef Pierce, and he mentioned that he was considering a tasting menu in the future, which is fantastic news for diners. Although I would agree with Mr. Porter on the music and ambiance, one of my favorite parts of the interior design was the open kitchen; watching the chefs meticulously prepare and plate each order consumed a majority of my evening! This is certainly a welcome addition to the Portland seafood scene, and one that I will be frequenting often. Thanks for this review, Mr. Porter and Food Dude…
Sorry, forgot to add: with four cocktails, a bottle of wine, and the food we ordered, the total bill (pre-tax and tip) was $196.
I have to agree with this review. My wife and I ate at Fin last week and while we didn’t have anything with uni ( I have an aversion to it), everything we had was excellent. We did not see your review before we tried the place so I thought it would be more of a typical NW seafood restaurant. I was surprised at the level of preparation and the delicacy of the dishes. Everything we had was very good. The dessert menu seemed a bit of a
letdown after the amazing cold plates and main dishes.
A big +1 on the review. Totally agree. We’ve been there twice and blown away both times. Meticulous preparation and layers upon layers of flavor in each bite. Like FoodGroupie, I also have somewhat of an aversion to Uni, but sucked it up and tried a plate with it as one of the ingredients. Was absolutely wonderful, with amazing creamy texture. Wouldn’t hesitate to try it again… particularly there. Thanks for the great review and pics. Spot on. We’ll be back soon.
Ate there a few weeks ago and there were 3 of us and we were able to pick about 2/3rds of the items on the menu and everything but a portion of one of the dishes was fantastic. The Butterfish preperation (not the tartare) was otherwordly. Great flavors and unique takes on a wide range of fish and seafood. Then again, I hate America. The wine list was odd (no vintages were listed) but hopefully that will improve with time. They were more than amenable to corkage though. No brainer on going back again and again.
My comment is in response to jimster about the wine list. I ate at Fin and loved everything, but was particularly impressed by the wine list. It is really well edited and apparently changes frequently. The server told me that all the wines come from coastal regions. The sommelier there specifically left vintages out to make it more approachable. I love that. I am in the wine industry myself and understand how intimidating vintages can be. And also, just how little they matter sometimes. With such an intimate list (about 20 bottles) you know that each wine has been hand-picked. And for the snobs out there, If you really need to know the vintage, you can ask. Don’t change the wine list, Fin!
Food Dude says
I disagree that the vintage doesn’t need to be listed. It can make a huge difference.
It can make a huge difference. You are totally right. But, for the type of list they have, it is somewhat arbitrary because you know that with such a tight list, there is no room for error. None of them are library wines and they don’t have verticals, so why over complicate the issue? And for those of us who do feel comfortable talking vintages, the service staff can give you that info.
Also, for the majority of wine drinkers out there, it is just a source of anxiety. You know what I would like to see on wine lists: ABV. These days, that will tell me more about the wine than the vintage. A good producer will show more character than you would expect in off years and bad producers will squander the best years. But if I see a 15% abv cab, I’m running the other direction no matter what.
No matter your opinion, you do have to admit that too many restaurant wine lists have no concept at all. If nothing else, you have to hand it to Fin for at least having put some thought into it. Trying something different.
Steve Wino says
I don’t understand why you elevate ABV over vintage. I’ve had 15% cabs that were beautifully balanced and lower alcohol level cabs that were under ripe and poor representations of the varietal from wherever the wine originated. By the same token, I have seen the reverse.
But lets talk about a red varietal that one might really drink with seafood, pinot noir. There, vintage can almost tell you the ABV as well as flavor profile and style. Give me a 2007 over a 2006 or 2008 Oregon pinot noir and it will be more elegant, lighter bodied and a much better pairing. And with whites, which are more likely to be paired with seafood, you don’t tend to see the over the top alcohol levels that are most often associated with the bigger, fuller bodied reds that you wouldn’t drink with seafood in all likelihood.
I usually associate a wine list without vintage as a product of chain restaurants. I am surprised that a restaurant of this caliber is not putting the vintage on the list. It’s not a make or break deal at all, just a quirk that makes the server run off to check and makes ordering a bit more of a process.
A wine list without vintages isn’t a wine list. How do I know that the Muscadet isn’t a something with one more year of bottle age than I would want (say a 2007 versus a 2008)? All of the restaurants in their category hand pick their wines so Fin isn’t any different in that regard. There are lots and lots of good wine buyers in this town and there are plenty of restaurants that have wine lists that are put together in a cogent, intelligent way. I am in the wine business too and I have no idea how vintages make wine more intimidating. More information is a bad thing? Regardless of what they say they are doing I would regard a wine list without vintages very suspiciously and would either ask about the vintages of the wines I was interested in (pain in the ass for the server if they have to go look), BYOB (which we did and they were fine with) or not order wine. It’s not a good concept. It looks sloppy and smacks of laziness even if it isn’t.
We could go back and forth on this all day long, but this is not the place. I’d be happy to sit down and open your eyes. For now, lets just agree to disagree.
Wow, for someone who is agreeing to disagree you sure like to have the last word. You won’t open “enlighten” me on this because I don’t look at wine this way. I sure as hell don’t want them to just write “tuna” when it might be albacore, hamachi, ahi, bluefin, yellowfin, etc. If you don’t care that they aren’t providing basic information that any and most every restaurant in their quality and price category does provide that’s fine. I think it looks curious and certainly it provides less information than I and others would be looking for. I would think that the people inclined to eat at Fin would be a lot more interested in knowing the vintages on the wine list than they would be intimidated by them.
wine and dine says
Given the caliber of the food, my opinion (no ones asking) is the wines ARE carefully selected.
Nice to have so many wine aficionados on this site. Most people will feel less intimidated.
Some will ask, the rest of you BYOB!
Agree with the music comment. Let us have our zen moment savoring artful deliciousness!
The average person is going to be relieved- the wine list is tight to the point.
Aficionados can bring there own.
Great addition to PDX food scene.
While I found the lack of vintages a little bothersome I was far more put off by the selection. On a recent visit we elected to drink sake after looking forward to sharing a bottle of wine with dinner. Sadly couldn’t find one selection tempting enough. It just felt like a list playing it way too safe. Here you have this exciting, inventive cuisine and the wine choices are just totally uninspired.
And I don’t agree that wine lists need to be dumbed down. That’s a downward spiral and not something you see happening in other major cities with great restaurant scenes.
garden girl says
After reading RP’s review of Fin, we decided to try it. It was extremely disappointing. The table we had asked for and confirmed was not available (there were several options and all of them had been taken – I’m not sure if this was the fault of reservations or the floor staff). We had an early reservation so it wasn’t an issue of tables needing to turn. Instead we were seated next to a very loud party of 6, practically down the hall to the rest room with a cold draft blowing on us. The manager (who was very knowledgeable about wine and seemed to be doing a good job of supporting his staff) kindly let us move to the bar.
The bartender who served us was very sweet, but knew nothing about the menu and kept looking at his cheat sheet when making house listed special cocktails. I assume he was brand new to Fin. Some of the dishes like the carpaccio and blue prawns were lovely, beautifully prepared. Others like the cooked greens/chard with mushrooms and miso along with the scallop/vegetable gratin were overly rich and cream laden. There was no lightness or delicacy.
One dish that was highly recommended by the manager was the gnocchi. The gnocchi was a heavy, soggy mess – the antithesis of light pillows – we each took a bite and sent it back. My husband has never in his life sent a dish back. It was awful.
So perhaps staff is being trained behind the bar and perhaps we hit an off night for the kitchen, but with so many lovely restaurants in PDX, it will be some time before we try it again.